Comedians as 'agents of thought'

Comedians as 'agents of thought'
Local comedian Rishi Budhrani won a comedy competition in Hong Kong and has performed in the United States, Britain, Australia and many venues in Asia.

In the second instalment of a six-part series, Ignatius Low speaks to local comedian Rishi Budhrani about the social role of comedy and whether the limits to political incorrectness would eventually shift in the new Singapore.

The first time I see comedian Rishi Budhrani perform is at a black-tie dinner attended by local and foreign editors and journalists.

He is a few minutes into his 20-minute set when he launches into what he calls his "problem sums" joke. It's a dig at the extreme political correctness of the Education Ministry's school textbooks in multiracial Singapore.

Even though textbook writers have taken pains to ensure equal representation of the three major races (Chinese, Malay and Indian) in every problem sum, he tells us, there is "always a hint of unfairness". People snicker as he proceeds to give an example familiar to anyone who studied in Singapore.

"Ah Seng, Ahmad and Muthu are in a playground playing marbles. Ah Seng has 10 marbles and Ahmad and Muthu have two marbles each. If Ahmad and Muthu give all their marbles to Ah Seng, how many marbles will Ah Seng have?"

Nervous laughter erupts as Mr Budhrani answers the question.

"In Singapore, it doesn't matter how you add, subtract or multiply. At the end of every problem sum, the Chinese guy ends up with the most marbles!"

He goes on to say that his friends tell him that true equal representation demands that every race must have a fair shot at winning.

"So, here is my version of the problem sum," he says. "Muthu, Ah Seng and Ahmad are sitting in a coffee shop. Muthu has 10 bottles of beer," he declares. "Ah Seng can only handle two, and Ahmad is drinking ice Milo."

I look around. The senior journalists in the room are no shrinking violets, but only half of them are laughing at his reference to the old racial stereotype that Indians like to drink. The other half are checking one another's reactions, as if not quite sure to believe what they've heard.

Yet Mr Budhrani goes on, and when he delivers the punchline to "the problem sum that only the Malay guy can win", there is some raucous laughter. But others in the audience are whispering and shaking their heads. It's a reaction that the 31-year-old comic can still recall four months later when I meet him for this interview.

I ask him whether in the new Singapore of the future, people will eventually become okay with performers like him who seem to dance on some of the deepest fault lines of our society.

"It's already happening," says the born-and-bred Singaporean confidently. "I think race in Singapore is not something people are uncomfortable with.

"It's something that people even enjoy laughing at, because we've all grown up aware of one another's differences. So doing the kind of comedy that I do about race is just another way to celebrate one another. I don't see it as anything more than that."

Mr Budhrani quickly points out, however, that there is a big difference between "doing racist jokes" and what he does, which is "mocking the ridiculousness of racial stereotypes". He says he also takes care to take the sting out of a racial joke by balancing it with something that people can feel good about. For example, in the problem sums joke, he earns more laughs by pointing out that although the Chinese guy always has the most marbles, street-might would have led Ahmad and Muthu to bully the weak Ah Seng and take his marbles.

It's a tricky sense of balance which Mr Budhrani has had to pick up quickly in his relatively short four-year career as a stand-up comic.

The son of a couple that run a tailoring business, the Tanjong Katong Secondary old boy first discovered his love for performing when he dropped out of Officer Cadet School during full-time national service and became a clerk with plenty of free time on his hands.

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